VSL:SCIENCE // The world’s most powerful X-ray laser, unveiled

Unveiled last month at the National Accelerator Lab at Stanford, the Linac Coherent Light Source (or LCLS) is the world’s most powerful X-ray laser — and it doubles as the world’s fastest microscopy camera.

The X-ray pulses that this mile-long device emits are a billion times brighter than prior sources could produce, and far more precise: The LCLS can snag stop-motion images of incredibly small and fleeting processes, like the folding of proteins and the atomic rearrangments that occur during solid-to-liquid transitions. This summer, the laser’s operators will begin tackling a few basic questions: What happens to atoms and molecules when a high-energy X-ray hits them? No one really knows — yet.

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